Shop profile: Texas duo’s 3 shops on ambitious growth path

Aug. 19, 2016
Set on five acres with easy access just a half-mile north of Interstate 290 in Cypress, Texas, First Choice Collision-Cypress was customized to meet its customers' needs.

For Mike Matejek and Ronnie Johnston, the future’s so bright they have to…build awnings.

Set on five acres with easy access just a half-mile north of Interstate 290 in Cypress, Texas, First Choice Collision-Cypress “is our first shop to design and build ourselves, which enables us to maximize the use of the property and to customize the dimensions of the building to fit our needs,” Johnston points out, citing the newly constructed 14,000-sq.ft. metallic structure equipped with 24 body work bays, “and we have plans to build another building for our mechanic shop after we catch our breath.”

“We opened our first shop 25 years ago with more desire to succeed than we had money,” Johnston recounts. Called Westside Collision, this Houston location was originally comprised of 14 bays in an aging 7,500-sq.ft. metallic building while office functions were conducted in a separate freestanding wooden building. It was not the most luxurious nor efficient setup, but the two friends persevered in pursuing their ownership aspirations.

Working under a one-year lease with an option to buy for a set price within that timeframe, the pair made the purchase as the anniversary arrived. “Initially Mike and I wore every hat from estimator to body and paint until we grew enough in sales to justify hiring technicians and office help,” he says.

“After eight years we had outgrown the office and the shop, and made the decision to expand. We added on an additional 4,250-sq.ft. to the front of the existing building, 1,500-sq.ft. of office space and 12 more bays. We wanted to make a statement to everyone that drove by that a collision repair center did not have to look like the typical rundown, dirty shop. The front of the office is constructed of Austin chalk stone with green-tinted large windows. On both sides of the office we attached porte cocheres (drive-through porches) for our customers. Our growth continued with added technicians and additional estimators -- which allowed Mike and I to devote more time to manage our business,” Johnston explains.

First Choice Collision/Westside Collision

Headquarters: Houston

Owners: Mike Matejek and Ronnie Johnston

No. of shops: 3

Years in business: 25

No. of employees: 56

No. of DRPs: 7

Total square footage of shops: 39,750

No. of bays per shop: 33, 14 and 24

Average cycle time: 3.2 days

Average repair order: $2,000

Vehicles per week combined: 80

Annual gross revenue combined: $9.4 million

Paint supplier: AkzoNobel/FinishMaster

Estimating system used: CCC ONE

“So here we are, a beautiful showcase, and Mike and I were strutting around like two peacocks.” Yet more changes were soon to come. “One of our biggest challenges at that time was having to take customers’ vehicles to a local mechanic shop to perform alignments and mechanical issues our technicians were not trained to do. This took two employees, time and exposure a possible accident. With this problem, we decided it was time to add on again.”

Another building was constructed to install four mechanical bays, four detail bays, three paint bays with an additional booth, alignment equipment and an office. “We hired a certified mechanic and kept all the mechanical revenue in-house.”

In 2011 came First Choice Collision in Conroe, Texas. Also housed in a metallic structure with an attractive stone front, Matejek and Johnston plan to add more footage by the end of the year as the brand-new First Choice Collision-Cypress gets up and running and becomes an established enterprise.

They attribute their success to “honesty, quality and the fact that we coach all of our employees to exceed every customer’s expectations,” emphasizing the attention to detail they extend toward hiring and retaining the best staffers.

“Mike and I both have worked for other shops as body and frame technicians before opening our first shop. This has been helpful in knowing what our technicians’ daily challengers are,” Johnston says. “Mike and I are committed to giving our employees the opportunity to improve their lifestyle and to make a difference -- not only in our community but also in the collision repair industry: That we can and will run our business with integrity and honesty.”

Much emphasis is directed toward “following standard operating procedures and working as a team to deliver quality repairs in a timely matter.”

Johnston is quick to observe that “we could not be as successful without all of our dedicated employees.”

Realistic expectations
A blended family of sorts among the two longtime friends plays a key role in ensuring operational excellence and continuity. Matejek’s daughter Stacy oversees the administrative duties while Johnston’s son Travis serves as a shop manager.

“Ronnie is like an uncle to me; we grew up like family,” says Stacy. “We work here together, and with Travis I consider him like a little brother.”

Johnston’s stepson Cody Grappe is also on board in keeping with the goal of “grooming them to be able to step into our shoes one day.”

“Ronnie and I are both hands-on,” says Matejek. “It’s hard to hand it off, but we’re bringing the younger folks up, and we all get along together.”

Stacy marvels at the work ethic displayed by her Dad and Johnston. “They’re busy bees,” she observes.

Mike Matejek has been personally overseeing construction at the new site and actively participating in the building process. He also runs a 15-head Black Angus cattle ranch and flies his own airplane.

“In my younger life I had wanted to fly for 30 years,” says Matejek, explaining that he finally took off in pursuit of a pilot’s license “when we moved to a neighborhood that was in the flight path of an airport.”

Only 22 percent of the people who seek a pilot’s license actually attain the document, according to Matejek, referring to the inherent difficulty of learning all the required details.

Some of that knowledge has been applied to the shop in the form of formulating checklists to ensure that every task is performed to perfection on every repair. “I use a lot of checklists,” Matejek reports. “There are 117 items to check off before you can take off, so I share that concept with the fellows” on the shop floor.

A marketing campaign encompassing all three locations is being rolled out, and in the meantime bold signage, a clean and attractive look from the street, enthusiastic outside sales personnel for soliciting fleet and car dealer accounts, word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers and gentle recommendations from pleased insurance agents are all combining to deliver growth and prosperity for the business.

“Maintaining positive relationships with insurance providers is an easy task,” Johnston asserts. “They have guidelines for us to follow like any business. If we provide quality repairs in the appropriate time and give great customer service while following their guidelines our customers are happy and the provider is happy.”

In working with vendors, such as CCC ONE, AkzoNobel and FinishMaster, it is important to “set realistic expectations of our needs and pay early,” according to Johnston. “Life is all about relationships; having great relationships with automotive affiliates strengthens their willingness to refer customers to us and also steers our customers to them.”

As for dealing with the customers, “accidents, whether big or small, are traumatic,” he notes, “but getting your vehicle repaired doesn’t have to be. We understand that auto repair is inconvenient, that’s why we make it one of our top priorities to get your car in top condition and back on the road as soon as possible.”

Being able to provide onsite mechanical repairs has proven to be a significant plus for customers and company alike. “There are many mechanical components that can be damaged in a collision,” says Johnston, expressing confidence that any issues regarding a vehicle’s suspension, electrical system, radiator, door locks, window motors, air conditioning, steering, exhaust, upholstery, and other components can be efficiently addressed without leaving the premises.

Paintless dent repair and towing are additional sources of revenue, plus Matejek and Johnston own four boat and recreational vehicle storage facilities.

Prior to founding Westside and First Choice with Matejek, Johnston had been a body and frame technician for 18 years. Matejek had an equally strong industry background, especially as it relates to mechanical repairs, as part-owner of a body/mechanical parts house in Katy, Texas.

As Matejek parted company with his then-partners in search of a different career goal, “we worked together at three different shops for several years and became hunting and fishing buds. On one of our annual pheasant hunting trips I told Mike that we should open our own shop,” Johnston recalls. “Then the following year on the same hunting trip I mentioned it again, and he said he was ‘tired of hearing about it -- so let’s stop talking and do it.’”

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